"The lone digital scholar" by Gabriel Egan, Loughborough University
The future of early-modern studies is likely to follow the path of humanities research generally, and opinions on that vary. A view popular with governments is that the humanities will become like the sciences, and lone researchers will be replaced by large groups of collaborators. Those who promote this view note that science was largely done by loners and small groups until about 50 years ago and is now almost entirely collaborative on a large scale, and they assume that the same change must occur in the tardy humanities. Leaving aside the matter of whether this view is strictly true of science--nuclear physics, for example, seems to have been done in teams since its inception--the motivation for doing research in large-scale collaborations is to attract the capital investment without which most branches of science cannot continue. This principle does not apply to early-modern studies: many years ago were made the investments in libraries that preserve the materials we use and lone researchers simply having a look at them will continue to publish as much new knowledge as they find the free time to generate and write up.
In 40 years time, this probably will not require traveling to the library since for most purposes digital surrogates are as good as or better than the real thing. Surrogates are clearly better when one wants to compare, say, all the surviving exemplars of an early book. One might (just) persuade Cambridge to send its book to Oxford, or the Huntington to send its to the Folger, but to persuade all these institutions to let just one of them be a collating point is beyond the powers of persuasion of most of us. By 2049, we will be freed to work just about anywhere using digital surrogates. The creation of large-text corpora of the raw materials for early-modern research is just beginning to lead to new insights. With around 12% of the Early English Books Online now keyed as searchable full text by the Text Creation Partnership, it is beginning to become possible to answer almost instantly questions that used to take up a whole PhD such as 'how often and in what contexts did early-modern writers refer to the behavior of cows?' The kinds of questions we have thought to ask are, necessarily, shaped by the limitations of our still burdensomely paper-centric minds. With all the surviving books and manuscripts scanned and keyed (and 40 years should be enough for that), and armed with the new techniques of data-mining exquisitely refined, we will start to think of new kinds of questions that hitherto were scarcely conceivable because the means to approach an answer did not exist. It is easy to think of digitization giving us only ever more fancy ways of indexing, but of course in 40 years the computers will be doing for themselves something close to what we call reading. Complex as it is, human language is not the most intractable phenomenon to analyze and automate.
Will our outputs remain the same? Writing is likely to remain essential to the dissemination of new knowledge, but it can be greatly supplemented by other media. Why give someone a description of something when you can give them a model of it? Three-dimensional modeling is currently difficult to do, but it is the preferred way of articulating certain kinds of knowledge. If computers transformed modeling into something easy for anyone to do (as in the 1980s they transformed the early-modern art of typesetting) then our preferred way to explain how a painting was made might be to construct a virtual model comprised of layers that can be peeled away. Rather than describe the likely staging of a moment in a play, it might be more convenient to take an existing model of the theatre in which it was performed, populate it with avatars dressed as one thinks the actors were dressed, and to animate them. The beauty of descriptions so comprehensively illustrated will hasten the demise of the book, and the graduate students of 2049 will marvel that in the early 21st century scholars persisted in calling the codex a 'technology' and predicting its survival.